Michael Gerson

This trend in social science, according to Yuval Levin of National Affairs, is "driven by a deep yearning -- fed by a kind of envy of modern natural science and its power -- for the precision of mathematics in a field of study whose subject can yield no such certainty." The modern belief that only science yields truth results in the application of scientific methods beyond their proper bounds, and the dismissal of other types of knowledge, including ethical knowledge. Political science seems particularly susceptible to precision envy.

Politics can be studied by methods informed by science. But it remains a division of the humanities. It is mainly the realm of ethics -- the study of justice, human nature, moral philosophy and the common good. Those who emphasize "objective" political facts at the expense of "subjective" values have strained out the soul and significance of politics. It is an approach, in the words of G.K. Chesterton, "that stores the sand and lets the gold go free."

Over the last decade, there has been a revolt among political scientists against a mathematical methodology that excludes substantive political debates about justice and equality. A similar revolution is increasingly needed in political commentary. The problem with the current fashion for polls and statistics is that it changes what it purports to study. Instead of making political analysis more "objective," it has driven the entire political class -- pundits, reporters, campaigns, the public -- toward an obsessive emphasis on data and technique. Quantification has also resulted in miniaturization. In politics, unlike physics, you can only measure what matters least.

And so, at the election's close, we talk of Silver's statistical model and the likely turnout in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, and relatively little about poverty, social mobility or unsustainable debt. The nearer this campaign has come to its end, the more devoid of substance it has become. This is not the advance of scientific rigor. It is a sad and sterile emptiness at the heart of a noble enterprise.


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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